Netflix Now: The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez (2020) - Reviewed

Netflix’s latest documentary is an absolute heart-breaker. I can not recall how many times I was overcome with emotion and had to wipe away tears. The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez brings to light one horrific tale of child abuse so severe that an eight-year-old boy is beaten to death. This documentary will make you angry. I felt my face tighten into a snarl every episode, and I found myself clenching my jaw and balling my fists. The injustice is incomprehensible. How can a parent inflict so much pain onto their own child? How can a system that was created to protect a child in an abusive home allow a child to slip through the cracks? Not just once, but on multiple occasions. There was one common response I got when discussing The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez with others - “I could never watch that.” I will not lie, this is a gut wrenching watch. It highlights the story of a boy who tried so many times to tell his story only to have his voice silenced. No one wanted to listen. Personally, my response is - How can you not? Gabriel Fernandez’s story is important. This documentary is his chance to finally be heard. It is a story of a boy who cried for help but was neglected. Now is his chance. 

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez doesn’t candy coat the gruesome details. It would have been an injustice to do so. You will see pictures of Gabriel as a young boy - smiling, joyful, full of life and love. You will see happiness in his bright brown eyes. You will also see pictures of Gabriel with black eyes, burn marks, lacerations, and more gruesome injuries that are unimaginable to comprehend. The fact that a child had to endure such torture is soul crushing. Realizing this documentary only exposes one case is enough to make one ill. Despite the heavy content The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez deserves some production praise. It couldn’t have been easy for documentary film maker Brian Knappenberger to put together. While presenting a horrific story, Knappenberger also brings to light bureaucratic social issues, and a system that is so entwined with flaws that it allowed for this tragedy to occur. While the system is flawed in areas, it is important not to cast judgement across the system as a whole. There are those who cared and tried to help, yet after all their attempts to shine a light on the abuse, like Gabriel, they were ignored. Gabriel's death is a tragedy. Knowing that people tried to prevent it but were met with deaf ears is nothing short of nauseating. All the warning signs were there!

You will learn how the Department of Child and Family Services works in Los Angeles County. You’ll also learn how social standings and geographic data is used to determine if a call of reported child abuse should be followed up on by using a computer program. It is frightening to know a computer is making decisions about an abused risk child’s well being. You will also learn there are good people out there, some who even risk their jobs and go against company policies to do what they believe is right. Throughout the six episodes you will learn about a sweet boy who’s mother abandoned him at the hospital after giving birth. 

You’ll discover he was raised by his Uncle and his partner until Gabriel's grandfather intervened because he didn’t believe two men should be raising a child. The family believed that four year old Gabriel had been "turned gay" when they heard him tell his uncle that he loved him. At the time, his uncle and his partner were the only parents he ever knew, and were the only family members willing to take him in to prevent him from going into foster care. After a few years living with his grandparents, Gabriel moved in with his mother and her boyfriend because they wanted the extra $700 dollars a month they could collect from welfare if he was living under their roof. 

The events that follow after Gabriel moves in with his mother are terrible. There are graphic details of the torture he endures. There is an emergency room photo of his beaten body that will make you gasp. I will warn you again that this documentary will infuriate you and break your heart. The majority of this documentary is the aftermath following Gabriel's death. If you can get through the first episode, you can get through them all. The sad details of abuse continue to emerge throughout the episodes. There is the testimony of a concerned teacher who tried on multiple occasions to get him help, a stranger who called 911 and described an array of injuries, and the first hand testimonies of parental abuse shared by Gabriel’s older siblings. 

There were points watching this documentary where terrible details were revealed and I suddenly felt nothing. So much so that I became concerned about my emotions. All the ugly and disgusting revelations made me temporarily numb and desensitized. These moments were brief, and always dissipated when another unbelievable detail of abuse would ignite a fire of anger in me. My heart just couldn’t absorb the entire magnitude of sadness and horror Gabriel had to endure. I had to pause this documentary on several occasions to give myself a mental break. It is that intense. 

I do not fault anyone for not wanting to watching this documentary. Who willingly wants their heart broken by details of child abuse? Although I will say The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is an eye opener, and educating one’s self is a major step in knowing what to look for and making sure something like this will never happen again. A few people saw the signs and took action on Gabriel’s behalf. It’s comforting knowing there are still good people out there. You may not notice them, but you pass them every day on the way to work or in the aisles while grocery shopping. Unsung heroes who try everyday to reach the thousands of abused children who are calling for help. The death of Gabriel Fernandez is inexcusable. This documentary exposes a sinister evil that exists in this world, and serves as a reminder that we can all be a little more compassionate when it comes to the suffering of others. 

--Lee L. Lind